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Sufi Religious Leaders and Sufi Orders in the Contemporary Middle East

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This article examines the authority of the Sufi shaykh, which it divides between the esoteric and the exoteric (which includes the social implications of esoteric authority) and analyses with help from Weber. In principle Sufi shaykhs are among the most important leaders of the Sunni faithful. In practice, however, the Sufi shaykh now has much less power and authority than might be expected. This is partly because modern states have, in general, reduced the power of Sufi shaykhs, and because decline in the power of the ʿulamaʾ has included the decline of the power of Sufi shaykhs who are also ʿulamaʾ. It is also because there is an inverse relationship between the power of the shaykh and the size of his ṭarīqa (order). The most powerful shaykh is the one with primarily charismatic authority, but his ṭarīqa will be small. The largest ṭarīqa is led by a shaykh whose authority depends on tradition and heredity; his power is not so great. This paradox is not changed by the availability, for political reasons, of new sources of state support for the leadership role of Sufi shaykhs as an alternative to Salafi and ikhwāni Islam.

Affiliations: 1: Aarhus University, Jens Chr. Skous vej 3, 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark,


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